I wrote this last year, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
[T]he attacks meant almost nothing, at least in terms that would mean anything to us (which are the terms that matter in this case). They were not a sign of some kind of essential decadence or weakness. Al Qaida successfully exploited a series of simple loopholes that allowed an unprecedented attack to succeed. If we had had almost any kind of screening for passengers, the attacks would have failed. If cockpit doors had been routinely reinforced, the attacks would have failed. If the officers and crew had imagined that terrorists might not hijack or blow up a plane, but instead want to use one as a flying bomb, the attacks would have failed. And so forth – the attacks succeeded basically because we had no defense in place at all against such an attack, and preventing a recurrence was actually trivial.
The political significance was similarly nugatory. Al Qaeda’s political goals were outlandish to the point of absurdity. Afghanistan was more like Grand Fenwick than it was like the Empire of Japan. Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers. All the efforts to ascribe a meaning to the events – the terrorists hate our freedom, or they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region, or they hate that we are infidels, or they hate that we are engaged in wars of aggression against Muslims, or whatever – were responses to our need for meaning rather than to the events themselves. But the indifference of reality to our needs – in this regard as in most – is comprehensive.
In retrospect, what suffered the most lasting damage from the terrorist attacks of ten years ago was my belief in my own rationality. I believed that I was thinking things through seriously, and coming to difficult but true conclusions about what had happened, what would happen, what must happen. Here is part of what I wrote, to friends and family, several days later:
“Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us.”
There is not a single factual assertion in that paragraph that I had any reason to believe I could substantiate. I did not know anything about the enemy. I had no idea whether or not there were “operations” in dozens of countries – I don’t even know what I meant by “operations.” I know what I was referring to with the business about being “supported” by friends and enemies, but “support” is a deliberately fuzzy word; I wouldn’t have used it if I was trying to make a concrete assertion with clear implications. The purpose of that assertion, like everything else, was to build up my first assertion. We were at war. And it wouldn’t be short or easy. Because that conclusion, though grim, was one that imparted meaning to the murder of 3,000 people. I thought I was being serious – examining the facts, calculating the likely negative consequences of necessary action, preparing myself for the unfortunate necessities of life. But I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was engaged in a search for meaning in which reason was purely instrumental.
The great intellectual victors in the immediate post-9-11 period were the people who could imbue it with meaning. To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances. In other words, the very fact that there was so little we knew, and that what there was to know wasn’t very satisfying in terms of imparting meaning to events, very naturally empowered those whose views didn’t depend on knowledge. That’s how we wound up in Iraq. The advocates of war did not begin advocating for war on 9-11 – “finishing the job” in Iraq had been on the agenda for the entire decade prior. Nor did they need to prove any connection to the 9-11 attacks. We wound up in war in Iraq, in a very real sense, because “finishing the job” in Iraq imparted an appealing meaning to the terrorist attacks. And opposing the war felt like it tore the meaning off that terrible day, leaving its empty horror naked before us. That’s how it felt to me, at the time, when I think back.
And that’s what I mean by saying that what suffered the most lasting damage was belief in my own rationality. Or in anybody else’s.
Don’t have much to add, so I’ll just leave it at that.